Why Fabregas - and not Rooney - will define Moyes' early Manchester United reign

In stark contrast to his predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, the new Old Trafford manager has picked two very public battles which could see him cheered or chastised by supporters
By Jonathan Birchall

It was 2004. Cesc Fabregas, then a cocksure 17-year-old and unused substitute as Manchester United beat Arsenal 2-0 to stop them reaching 50 unbeaten league games, entered an angry melee between the teams at full time and in a moment of slapstick genius slammed a slice of Hawaiian pizza into the face of Sir Alex Ferguson.

In the six subsequent years before he joined Barcelona in 2011, two things were notable. Fabregas did not win a single league title- compared to Ferguson's five - and Sir Alex saw that pizza was never again served at Old Trafford.

As always, even on the rare occasion that Sir Alex lost the battle, he won the war. A master of risk management, he picked fights big enough to matter and small enough to win.

Nine years on, and the Scot's successor David Moyes is looking at the same Spaniard and squaring up for a different kind of fight, a rather different approach to risk management.

Once so disliked at Old Trafford to the point that Wenger complained of the treatment the midfielder had received at the Theatre of Dreams, Fabregas is now prime target number one for United and soon to be the subject of a third big-money bid from Moyes' side.

And the midfielder's willingness to swap Catalonia for the northwest of England - and indeed Barcelona's willingness to agree such a move - could well define the early stages of Moyes' reign.

By allowing their pursuit of the 26-year-old to be played out ever so publically, Moyes has ensured that the world will be watching when the move succeeds or fails. Either way, it is most likely he who will be hailed... or judged.

Fabregas, a genuinely world-class central midfielder, would be a staggeringly good signing. He is worth the 'third and final' £35 million offer that Barcelona, according to sources in Spain, are still more likely to reject than accept.

2/7 Cesc Fabregas is 2/7 with William Hill to stay at Barcelona
United have already missed out on Thiago Alcantara, who chose Munich over Manchester once Pep Guardiola arrived on the scene a fortnight ago. To miss out now on Fabregas too would prompt more concerns from United fans that Moyes has overplayed his hand in public again.

Central midfield, neglected for too long in the eyes of fans at Old Trafford, cannot see Moyes defeated like it so often did his predecessor in the transfer market. 20 years and one day since Roy Keane signed for Sir Alex four years younger than Fabregas is now, and historically, tactically and politically, signing the Barca playmaker or his equivalent is the new man's must-win this summer.

Even more so than the continued - and again incredibly public - tussle with a wantaway Wayne Rooney.

Rooney, by way that surely only he and those who represent him know how, continues to maintain a special level of attention from those in charge at the club. 8,000 miles away from his team-mates in Yokohama, the forward remains a distant headache in Carrington, nursing his hamstring injury, seemingly paving an escape to Chelsea.

How has it come to this? Moyes insists Rooney, a potentially lucrative asset who by his own assertion isn't first-choice up front, who scored less than half the number of league goals that Robin van Persie managed last term, is not for sale. There is plenty of evidence and logical argument to suggest the contrary.

But while Rooney, not the player he once was in a position where United are now rich in depth, may offer a compelling storyline, Moyes, ever the pragmatist, should see through the soap opera.

Securing Fabregas or not is far more likely to define his first season in the job when hindsight arrives a year from now.

The £35m move for the former Arsenal captain, which the United boss has already admitted may be doomed to failure, is indicative of not only the club's new-found frankness with the media, but also what has appeared, at times, a scattergun approach in the transfer market. Luka Modric, Marouane Fellaini and Yohan Cabaye have all been earmarked as potential alternatives to the already-alternative Fabregas. How long that list goes on until someone - anyone - arrives to plug the Paul Scholes-shaped hole next to Michael Carrick in midfield is open to debate.

But whereas the situation surrounding Rooney, who was booed by some sections of the Stretford End at Sir Alex's final match at Old Trafford, is a fight in which Moyes can maintain an element of control, the pursuit of Fabregas is now out of his hands. The third and final £35m push, sources at United say, is it. Jackpot or bust and the whole world is watching.

To be so bold as to publicly declare an interest in the midfielder has taken what was at one point a shrewd piece of thinking by Moyes and turn it into a potential rod for his own back.

It was a gamble that Sir Alex rarely saw necessary during his 26 years at United. Very little made it into the public glare without his say so. His successor has picked two very public battles and as such must dodge the bullets flying his way and deliver.

It is another test of Moyes' United pedigree. Another battle that could too easily be lost.

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